The conception of power as mulk or ownership of a person, tribe or denomination has led to the destruction that is under our noses, what with the world powers’ blindness and the local players’ unscrupulousness

This article was published in Oasis 22. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:22:34

The conception of power as mulk or ownership of a person, tribe or denomination has led to the destruction that is under our noses, what with the world powers’ blindness and the local players’ unscrupulousness. The violence is hitting everyone indiscriminately but is reaching genocidal proportions in some communities. A turning point will come only with a form of democracy that citizenship rights and, at the same time, guarantees forms of representation for community spaces.


Interview with Hamit Bozarslan


The collapse not only of states but also of societies seems unstoppable in the Middle East. Do you see any signs of a trend reversal?

No. For the time being, societies are continuing to disintegrate without re-forming, whether it be in Iraq, Syria, Libya or Yemen. The exodus towards Europe also testifies to this indirectly. If we are to understand what is happening, we need first of all to take stock of the numbers in all their magnitude, without being naïve: today, 11 or 12 million Syrians out of a total of 22 million are displaced persons or refugees. The problem is so enormous that one can talk not only of a collapse of societies but also of their disappearance or extinction, to borrow a term from the natural sciences. It’s true that counter-examples can also be cited: the Kurdish society under construction, Egypt or Tunisia…. But wherever war reigns, the disintegration is steadily accelerating.


One often hears the theory in the Middle East, above all that the chaos would, in reality, have been caused from the outside in order to keep the whole region unstable.

I think this interpretation greatly over-estimates the West’s real operational capabilities. The Western states have not deliberately bet on chaos. If it is true that they have caused it and then subsequently factored it into their strategy, they have done so far more out of blindness and carelessness than by deliberate choice. To give you just one example: in Iraq, the city of Fallujah fell into Daesh’s (the Arabic acronym for ISIS, Ed.) hands on 4 January 2014. Had the Americans immediately taken countermeasures, Mosul, with its 1.3 million inhabitants, would probably not have fallen in its turn six months later. The inability to intervene in the field is striking. A very great deal of time has been wasted and the inertia in 2011-2012 has already cost us dearly. Back in 2012, people were talking about a few hundred jihadists, whereas nowadays they number tens of thousands and nobody is wondering what would happen were it to be Daesh or the al-Qaeda kind of jihadist movements who emerge as the winners. And yet it is a real possibility, even if we do not want to look it in the face.

That is as far as the West is concerned. As regards the regional and local powers, on the other hand, it can be said that every actor, being unable to achieve hegemony, has actually bet on a chaos strategy. This goes for Iran, whose responsibility absolutely must not be minimized. The negotiations with Iran are debatable – and, speaking personally, I am in favour – but we must be quite clear that Iran has done absolutely nothing to find a solution to the Syrian conflict. It immediately opted for Bashar al-Assad and has supported him at all costs. In the same way, although capable of carrying great weight in Iraq, Teheran has done nothing to correct Maliki’s policies and put a brake on his atrocious logic of denominationalization. Turkey has been just as bad, having deliberately played the most dangerous card that can exist in that region. And this for the purposes of containing the Kurdish movement and weakening Assad. Just recently, three or four articles appeared in the Turkish press about the support given to the Islamic State and the case is not closed. Saudi Arabia, too, has a large share of the responsibility as it is supporting the most worrying jihadist actors in an extremely ambiguous game directed at weakening Assad at all costs. I think that when future historians cover this blood-drenched decade, they will be far more likely to attribute the chaos to the local actors than to the Western powers. The latter have been guilty, rather, of remaining blind to events and inert.


You mentioned Maliki’s denominationalism in Iraq, one of the many examples of the conflict between Sunnis and Shi‘ites in today’s Middle East. Is this a structural factor that is impossible to get round?

I don’t know whether it is structural but what is certain is that the Iranian, Turkish and Saudi strategies are fuelling it to the utmost. You can now see an Alawite region and a Sunni region clearly establishing themselves in Syria. One day in the future they could escape Daesh’s control and end up under the sway of other more or less radical groups. In Iraq, the division had already begun with Saddam Hussein and his regime and it is now a fait accompli.


In the face of this escalation, what is happening to the tribes, another actor of considerable importance in the Middle East’s history?

First of all, the tribal phenomenon must not be seen as something static: it evolves and restructures itself in line with the power relations it has with the State. As a general principle, the weaker the state grows, the more the tribes count as a body. Today, however, although we are witnessing a collapse of states, it is not the tribes that are emerging as the decisive factor. Indeed, they too are losing ground and marking time in the face of an increasingly extreme denominationalization that does not hesitate to go so far as ethnic cleansing. Thus, in Yemen, the denominational element has had the upper hand over the tribal one. And in Libya, even if the tribes remain very active, the extent of the violence is such that they are not managing to remain autonomous. Something similar is probably also happening in Sinai, the only Egyptian region in which the tribes play a prominent part. If we wanted to draw a comparison with European history, we are right in the middle of the wars of religion. With the aggravating factor that a new, Middle Eastern, edition of the Peace of Westphalia is totally unlikely because it is the collapse of, precisely, the Leviathan state that we are witnessing, if indeed it ever existed in the Middle East.


And yet the Iranian nuclear deal could constitute the first step towards rehabilitating the state dimension…

I don’t think so. I am unable to read the domestic political situation or the struggle between the various factions, but at the level of foreign politics it is clear that Iran must stop following a denominational logic if it is to play a positive role. And yet, so far, the policy of militias has prevailed. Iran is not thinking about the actual societies existing in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq or Yemen. Teheran is viewing the conflict in terms of denominational communities and as long as it continues along this logic, it cannot become a stabilizing element. It is not very different from Saudi Arabia in this. Despite the huge resources it can bring to bear, Riyadh is not a positive factor in the region because the only logic it knows is the logic of politico-denominational hegemony. But one very easily moves beyond this logic to the logic of demography. And demographic hegemony means extermination, a militarization of communities and the destruction of state structures, to the advantage of one community. Even supposing that Riyadh and Teheran are not deliberately intending to fragment these societies, the logic inspiring their choices inevitably produces this result.


After Daesh’s lightning advance in Northern Iraq, people began talking of genocide at the expense of the ethnic and religious minorities. Is the use of this term justified, in your opinion?

Everybody is suffering in today’s Middle East and, in quantitative terms, the victims are for the most part Muslim, since the great majority of the population is Islamic. But one also needs to look at the matter in relative terms. A community like the Yazidi one numbers a few hundred thousand at most and it was almost defenceless at the time of the attack. If you abduct thousands of women and kill their husbands, as Daesh did, it doesn’t take long to reach genocidal proportions. Or let’s take the case of the Iraqi Christians who have, to a large extent, fled to Iraqi Kurdistan. So few had remained in Mosul that even the killing of a small number in absolute terms amounts to genocide. And then, the symbolic dimension must not be underestimated. Attacking the Christian and Yazidi communities is an expression of the will to destroy every form of multiculturality, every religious pluralism. It means totally wiping out every difference in belief and intervening directly in a space in order to delete the traces of a different religion’s existence; temples, monasteries etc. In short, the evil is hitting everyone and the result is terrible, both in Syria and in Iraq, but that does not mean that the case of the minorities should not be specifically considered. There is no victimization in this: there are simply victims.


The Kurds have acquired high visibility. Could they be a starting point for reconstructing the Middle East?

It’s too early to say. The Kurdish communities, too, are vulnerable, as one sees every day in Syria. Kurdish territories are currently areas of resistance but they lack a strong social bond with the neighbouring society. Furthermore, there is a very marked difference between Iraqi Kurdistan and Syrian Kurdistan: they are two totally different political models. Kurdish society is not egalitarian and this can also be seen in its relationship with minorities: Christians are protected – and that is already something – but there is no legal or political equality between Muslims and non Muslims. Above all, despite its internal cohesion, not even Kurdish society is capable of resisting for long in such a violent environment. Without American protection, would the Kurds have been able to maintain their positions, even in the face of a resolutely hostile Turkish policy? It is by no means guaranteed. The Kurds, too, are vulnerable. In order for the political situation really to change, the beginning of a democratization process at a regional level would be needed or, at least, citizenship as a value would have to prevail over the denominational logic.


And, in fact, during the course of the last century we have witnessed the failure of every political formula adopted in the Middle East because every one of these formulae resulted in integration and exclusion at the same time. For example, Islamic religious logic excludes or marginalises non-Muslims and Arabist national discourse excludes the non-Arabs. What formula could produce maximum integration and minimum exclusion nowadays?

This issue has been discussed in the past but I have the impression that these debates have lost their meaning nowadays and have been overtaken by events. For the future, I think it is impossible to imagine a Middle East at peace without introducing the concept of citizenship. This implies some form of democracy, although certainly not one predicated along western lines. A country can accommodate various communities. Denominational communities have the right to be represented and create their own internal structures, without the latter becoming prisons that prevent people leaving them. One can think of systems permitting regional autonomy; there are countless possible solutions and tweaks….. But, basically, I think that the idea of power as mulk (i.e. the ownership of a person, clan, tribe or denomination) should be renounced for once and for all and that the twofold notion that power belongs to a community and that there is a basic difference between the community and the structures both of power and of the state should be accepted. The state must be a state founded on the rule of law. History has shown that groups that come to power are tempted to confiscate that power as clans, tribes or denominations. I think the time has come to break with this logic. The results would be so sensational that I find it hard to imagine what this new Middle East could become. If ever it sees the light of day.


Could this process take place even within the current borders? For many people, they already no longer exist.

The problem is not the borders. For example, carving out an independent Kurdistan by moving the Iraqi-Syrian border would make absolutely no difference to the conflict in Iraq or Syria: because the conflict is basically denominational. What matters is that societies be able to rebuild themselves and that we may still speak of a Syrian or an Iraqi society in 2020. If this factor is guaranteed, the current borders could quite happily be maintained, whilst implementing forms of representation, autonomy and decentralization that are appropriate to each country. One might think of how to give communities some form of representation. One could attribute a special status to certain Sunni and Shi’ite authorities without this necessarily turning into a political representation of the various denominations.

In this sense, Syria’s recent history has something to teach us. Unlike Egypt, where Cairo has had a centralizing function, the Syrian society has never looked to Damascus as its only point of reference. Today Daesh’s tragic epicentre, the region of Raqqa has always had its own specific characteristics; Aleppo has always had a very strong identity; the central provinces with Hama and Homs are characterised by certain particular features; to the south, Deraa has close ties with Jordan, whilst there exists a continuum between Northern Iraq and Deir Ezzor. It is not impossible to think of acceptable forms of decentralization that would not obstruct an exercise of citizens’ rights and duties. We can think of Spain, in Europe. It is the jihadists who are obsessed with wiping out borders, whereas one can imagine a thousand ad hoc solutions. The only prerequisite is that peace be restored. Having said that, should Iraq disappear one day, it wouldn’t be a catastrophe. Were the Iraqis to disappear, that would be the catastrophe. But if the borders change without the political factor changing, there will always be war.


Talking of Iraq, two peace-making strategies have been tried there. The first dates to 2004 and was developed by Paul Bremer. It envisaged the total exclusion of forces linked to the Ba‘athist regime and it ended in a resounding failure. The second was launched by General Petraeus in 2007 and involved the Sunni tribes. It enjoyed a greater success but was suspended at a certain point. Could it be taken up again now?

I’ll answer your question with another question. Can you play the same card twice? Let’s not forget that the tribes have been left very disillusioned by the developments subsequent to 2007. And then there is a second question that is no less important: does the Baghdad government have the ability and will to abandon the logic of a Shi‘ite-Sunni conflict and share power? This, too, is by no means guaranteed. We continue to talk today of an Iraqi army, whose effectives officially number some hundreds units but, in reality, Baghdad no longer has an army. It is the Shi‘ite militias who are doing the fighting and they act with extreme brutality according to a denominational logic. Then there is a third factor that is inviting caution. Perhaps it is the most important, even if it is the most undervalued. It is the spatio-temporal factor. The longer a group manages to maintain its position in a space over time, the more it becomes irreversible. There is a process of institutionalization, organization and fortification under way in the territories controlled by Daesh. The tribes could have been decisive in 2007 and they still had their own importance in 2013 but they are far less important today. The Ba‘athist officials, too, played a pernicious part in the Islamic State’s emergence and its conquest of Mosul but are now totally marginalized. In many cases, inventing a shared citizenship was perhaps possible in the past but in many situations today it has an illusory ring to it: we can think of the Kurds. For the jihadists, the passage of time marks the construction of a state and its territorialisation. I am not at all certain that the 2007 strategy can still make sense in 2015. You can’t put the hands of the clock back.


In short, every day conceded to the Islamic State is a day lost?

Yes. And from their point of view, it is a day gained.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Hamit Bozarslan, “The Middle East in a Denominational Cage”, Oasis, year XI, n. 22, November 2015, pp. 90-96.

Online version:
Hamit Bozarslan, “The Middle East in a Denominational Cage”, Oasis [online], published on 27th January 2016, URL: